Westchester is home to several charming and independent bookstores where one can browse for books in a cozy atmosphere with a friendly face behind the checkout counter. They’re lovely places to feel connected to the community and support local, homegrown business. However, there are few stores like Hudson Valley Books for Humanity that help customers do good in more ways than just shopping locally. The mission-driven business works to amplify the voices of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups to give them a platform they often lack.
Amy Hall opened her new and pre-loved bookstore in Ossining in 2021. The idea started when used books kept piling up in her home and she was having trouble donating them. Since Hall is a sustainability professional and longtime employee of Eileen Fisher, she knew she wanted to keep these books out of the landfill to give them a second life, while also making them more affordable. Although she never aspired to open a retail store, she began to weave these aspects of her life together through this bookstore concept. With more time on her hands during the pandemic, her passion project grew into a full-fledged business.
In 2021, there was also a culture of activism within Ossining with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as women’s rights issues. The community had a lot of passion yet was still segmented. A bookstore could serve to highlight typically marginalized voices and bring people together to have conversations as a community.
The town of Ossining has a strong Spanish speaking community — about 33 percent of the community identifies as Latino — with many people coming from Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Because of this, Hall felt it was important to stock books in Spanish and translate the mission statement on her website to Spanish. “I want people to walk into the store and see themselves in the books first thing when they come in,” she says.
There is also a bookcase of banned books that is highlighted right by the door. Hall notes that it’s often a conversation starter and people are curious to hear why classics like To Kill a Mockingbird are banned. One of Hall’s goals is to make the store a place to hold conversations about race and current issues of our time. “Most bookstores have a shelf dedicated to featuring diverse authors. We are, as a society, starting to recognize that people of diverse backgrounds, skin colors, ethnicities, and genders have been underrepresented for generations and it’s time to put these people front and center.” Hall is committed to reversing the trend of representation without being exclusionary. “I still have a Stephen King book on the shelves because I think he’s fascinating.”
In addition to books, the store also features crafts from many local artisans. Hall initially found the artists by attending the craft crawl in Ossining and Croton. She selected some items that stuck out to her and has since been approached by numerous artisans who want to showcase their crafts. To get their goods displayed, artisans must answer how their crafts relate to the eco and social values of the store. She also houses a refillery in the store where customers can bring a reusable container to have a zero-waste method of buying household items like dish soap.
“I want people to walk into the store and see themselves in the books first thing when they come in.”
— AMY HALL Hudson Valley Books for Humanity
The bookstore also hosts events, from poetry open mics to upcycle workshops to live jazz nights. The space is an old opera house, and Hall wanted to honor the store’s history by continuing to have performances in the building. She knew that she wanted to host author events, but then local artists started approaching her with their own event ideas. “Most of the people have come to me. I’ve only set up one or two intentional events.” Hall wants to make sure that events highlight women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
Some events include a workshop hosted by the founder of For the People and Kids (forthepeopleandkids.com), another minority women-owned business in Westchester, where kids can create upcycled crafts out of old books. There is also an event with children’s author Jyoti Rajan Gopal (jyotirajangopal.com) to discuss her book on the cultural significance of saris at which attendees will have the opportunity to be draped in a sari. Hall also hosted a village retrospective event in which third-generation Ossining resident Kendall Buchanan and local historian Joyce Sharrock-Cole came together to discuss the Black community in Ossining over the years. They held a conversation about what it was like to grow up in Ossining as a Black man, while also revealing the beauty and history of the town. The store capitalizes on the space to serve as a community center, not just a book shop.
Hall has been a Westchester resident since 2000, and with her husband, has raised two daughters here. She’s watched the community change over the past two decades and witnessed shifts that have occurred without access to proper places to discuss their impact. Her bookstore creates an opportunity to gather and help bridge gaps in understanding experiences that differ from one’s own.
Hall is humble and always willing to help, so it is no surprise that she created a space to connect her community. Although it’s only been open for two years, it’s quickly becoming a cultural hub, with plans for an even bigger impact. As society recognizes the value of being able to physically gather in “third spaces,” Westchester stands to benefit as Hudson Valley Books for Humanity brings residents closer to understanding one another.